Movie Guru: Awkwafina grounds a poignant family drama with ‘The Farewell’
Editor’s note: This film is not showing at the Riverwalk of Edwards, CineBistro in Vail, or Capitol Theater in Eagle.
Laughter and tears are closer than some people think. That’s especially true in “The Farewell,” a poignant, surprisingly funny look at family, responsibility, and dealing with your past.
Though it’s deeply rooted in both Chinese and Chinese immigrant culture, it’s also universal enough to touch anyone who’s ever struggled with family issues. Anchored by a low-key, unexpectedly moving outing from Awkwafina, who captivated audiences last summer with “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s a quiet movie that will stay with you for a long time.
The movie focuses on Billi, a young Chinese woman who’s struggling with living the independent artist’s life in New York. Things get even more complicated when she hears that her beloved grandmother, who still lives in China, is dying of lung cancer. The catch is, the grandmother doesn’t know about her illness, and the family isn’t planning to tell her. Even when they all fly out for a cousin’s wedding, the family is determined to keep the secret.
“The Farewell” offers a more nuanced view of stressful family situations than most family dramas. There are the usual arguments and long-buried secrets, but they’re all the sort of accidental wounds families inflict on each other without meaning to hurt anyone. The movie also explores the motivation and heartbreak on both sides, making it clear that everyone did what they thought was right at the time.
This is markedly different than the usual family dramas, where the goal is to draw as much blood as possible from the characters. In a standard family drama, the audience is left trapped in the middle of what feels like a war. Here, we’ve simply been invited to a slightly tense, slightly sad family reunion.
Thankfully, it’s also surprisingly funny. Though much of the movie is in Chinese, the movie’s dry humor comes through clearly in either language. Many of the jokes spring from the universal nature of family, such as those older relatives that repeat the same piece of information over and over again. Other jokes come from the awkwardness of the situation, that deeper, slightly dark place where you laugh because the other option is crying. We’ve all lived through it, and seeing it onscreen is oddly cathartic.
The entire cast is good, but Awkwafina stands out as the biggest surprise. Though much more well-known for her comedy, the actress shows off a quieter, more emotional side here. Her character is an exhausted, perpetually broke millennial who feels disconnected both from the country of her childhood and the extended family that lived there. Awkwafina manages to ground both, giving Billi a wonderful wry humor and a sense of loneliness that seems to radiate from her very pores. She just wants to go home, but she’s not sure where that is anymore.
Odds are, you’ll leave the theater thinking about your own answer to that question.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rated: PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.
Written and directed by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, Jim Liu and more
Grade: Three stars